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Selective Outrage

Media Lens, London, 18 January 2012

News that a fourth scientist in two years, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, had been assassinated in Iran by an unknown agency generated minimal outrage in the press.

Patrick Cockburn notedin the Independent:
‘While the identity of those carrying out the assassinations remains a mystery, it is most likely to be Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad…’

The Sunday Times published a meticulous account of the planning and execution of the attack provided by ‘a source who released details’ on the actions of ‘small groups of Israeli agents’ operating inside Iran. (Marie Colvin and Uzi Mahnaimi, ‘Israel’s secret war,’ Sunday Times, January 15, 2012)

Julian Borger’s article in the Guardian warnedagainst ‘Goading a regime on the brink.’

We wonder if the Guardian would have described the Iranian assassination of scientists on US or Israeli streets as ‘goading’. We also wonder if Borger would have described these as terrorist attacks.

Using the media database Lexis-Nexis we have been able to find just one example of a UK journalist describing Roshan’s assassination as an act of terror – New Statesman’s senior political editor Mehdi Hasan writingin the Guardian. Otherwise, almost all references have been limited to the use of the word by Iranian officials behind scare quotes. (After challenges from Media Lens and other activists, Borger did publisha rare example of non-Iranian use of the term.)

By contrast, in October, the US accused Iran of recruiting a used car salesman, Manssor Arbabsiar, as part of a terrorist plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in a restaurant in Washington, DC. In that case, journalists had no qualms about using the word terror without inverted commas. Karen McVeigh reported in the Guardian:
‘Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalised US citizen, was arrested last month, and stands accused of running a global terror plot that stretched from Mexico to Tehran.’

The Daily Mail:
‘An extraordinary terrorist plot has been foiled – which would have seen the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. murdered on American soil.’

The Telegraph:
‘Iranian government officials were accused by the Obama administration of plotting a string of deadly terrorist attacks on American soil.’

On Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald postednumerous similar examples from the US media. The alleged Arbabsiar plot was subsequently debunkedby analyst Gareth Porter.

As Greenwald observed, ‘accusing Israel and/or the U.S. of Terrorism remains one of the greatest political taboos’. Responding to a Media Lens reader who had suggested, not unreasonably, that ‘a terrorist is one who brings terror to another person’, Channel 4’s Alex Thomson wrote:
‘Your definition of a terrorist as one bringing terror is nonsensical as it would encompass all military outfits’ including ‘the Royal Fusilliers [sic]’. (Forwarded to Media Lens, February 25, 2005)

Is that really so absurd? After all, following the murderous firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, prime minister Winston Churchill wrote to Bomber Command:
‘It seems to me that the moment has come that the bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed.’ (Blitz, Bombing and Total War, Channel 4, January 15, 2005)

Presumably, then, one can argue that the RAF is a terrorist organisation.

Returning to last week’s assassination, while no-one has yet suggested that Iran is now obliged to bomb Washington, Borger argued:
‘If Americans had been killed in the Georgetown restaurant that was supposedly the target [of the debunked Arbabsiar ‘plot’], the Obama administration would have been obliged to respond militarily.’

In similar vein, the aptly-named James Blitz asked in the Financial Times:
‘But even if an immediate military conflict… is averted, this still leaves a wider question: how much longer can Israel and the US wait before they bomb Iran’s nuclear sites?’

The day after Roshan’s killing, Andrew Cummings, formerly an adviser on the Middle East and US affairs in the UK cabinet office national security staff, commented in the Guardian on ‘the risks’ of ‘this audacious approach’ – he meant the murdering of scientists. The sub-heading explained:
‘The death of another Iranian scientist has led to criticism of such actions, but Tehran’s refusal to co-operate leaves little alternative.’

Cummings clarified:
‘What many people fail to recognise, though, is that a covert campaign, while rife with physical, diplomatic and legal risks, is the lesser of many evils.’

And yet, as Patrick Cockburn noted, ‘the US has found no evidence Tehran is trying to make a nuclear bomb, though US politicians [and US-UK journalists] often speak as if this was an established fact…
‘The US National Intelligence Estimates on Iranian nuclear progress, the collective judgement of all the US intelligence organisations, said there was no evidence Iran had been trying to build a bomb since 2003. The Defence Intelligence Agency concluded that Iran’s nuclear weapons programme at that time was directed against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and when he was overthrown by the US, it was ended.’

Compare this with Blitz’s version:
‘Some western intelligence agencies believe Iran will bide its time a little longer and enrich more uranium – but will not take the big strategic decision to race for the bomb in 2012. Still, in every other respect, the auguries are not good.’

Again by contrast, Greg Thielmann, a former US State Department and Senate Intelligence Committee analyst, toldveteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh last year: ‘there is nothing that indicates that Iran is really building a bomb’.

Readers might respond that Cummings and Blitz are entitled to their baseless views, and the Guardian and FT are perfectly entitled to publish them – that’s what free speech is all about. We agree.

But a problem arises when we try to imagine the Guardian publishing a piece justifying the Iranian killing of a US scientist on a US street one day after he had been murdered. And try imagining the FT hosting an opinion piece that asked: ‘How much longer can Iran wait before launching its bombers against the US and Israel?’

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